Home renovations are exciting creative endeavors as well as huge labor-intensive projects. Though each one is distinct, some of the most fascinating processes involve expanding the boundaries of what the meaning of "home" is. Not all renovations are simply a house after all.
In this series, This Is Home, we're sharing unique houses from all around the world in which everyone from DIY enthusiasts to design experts has transformed an unexpected space into one that's not only livable but design-focused, too. These stories delve into the backgrounds of remarkable places, the processes, and all the challenges and wins along the way while making a home out of it, whether it's a barn, castle, cabin, or schoolhouse. No matter what, they're spaces that people call home.
Many people dream of living in a real farmhouse or cozy cottage—hence the trends that have engrossed us all over the last few years. But Katarina of @katarinasoldhouse does not merely decorate like she's residing in an old farmhouse, she's living the reality.
While the place itself is dreamy, it took an immense amount of work to get the Finnish farmhouse and surrounding buildings to where they are today. There are many perks to living in a gorgeous old space like this, but, according to her, one of the best parts of occupying it is the "feeling of the ever-present history, and that we are just a parentheses of the history of the house—we just got the privilege to inhabit it for some decades or so."
Katarina's connection to the village where the farmhouse is located goes back much further than the year of her and her husband's house-hunting expedition. "Actually, my parents rented a smaller house in this very village when they got married and I lived in this village until I was seven," she says. "The contact with the people here remained but I never thought of returning." After studying in Helsinki and meeting her then-future husband, they explored a nomadic lifestyle for a decade, moving every second year. "During those years we started to long for some kind of country living," she explains. "We always had a common love for old houses so it was clear we looked for that."
That's when the opportunity to return to her old hometown arose. They found the house, which had been done up in a style that reflected a period spanning the '50s and '70s and had some damage inflicted to the original space. Still, she notes, "there were some remaining charming details we knew we would never get from a new house and the location was ideal." She says that they wanted to "redo it right, with only traditional materials and methods."
Despite the couple loving the house and their dedication to sticking with traditional processes, the most common advice they received from people "was to build a new house in an old style instead of restoring it." Fortunately, this didn't deter them.
A Storied Past
The farmhouse has a storied past. It was built in 1858 as a traditional Nordic farmhouse, according to Katarina. Over the years different parlors and chambers were added to the home. "Originally the farm was part of the Billnäs ironworks close by and remained so until 1906," she says. "In 1906, the farm was privatized and until 2003 it was owned by the same family from which we got the possibility to take over the buildings and only a little bit under 1 hectare of land." She adds that though neither she nor her husband are farmers, the prospect of country living deeply appealed to them.
After purchasing the home in 2003, it took six and a half years of restoration before they decided to move in. Though the main house was livable, there were seven other buildings and spaces on the property that needed work, plus Katarina notes "the garden was a disaster." This decision to hold off on moving in helped was a smart one in the long run. "We got our daughter in 2004 and our son in 2005 so for us, it was the wisest way to do it in order to keep some harmony in our family life," she says. "The last building, the sauna, was finalized only in 2021 as we really needed some rest between the projects. Maintaining it all is a never-ending process."
Anyone who undertakes a renovation has to have some kind of motivation and skill, but that doesn't mean you'll feel well prepared. "I think you are never equipped enough for such a project, but I have to mention my father whose help in terms of local contacts was invaluable," says Katarina. "My husband was the one leading the project with actually no experience at all. He started by reading everything he came across about traditional houses and methods and he had a lot of discussions with the craftsmen who wanted to do it in a more modern way. I was responsible for the fun part, the interior."
Though feeling ready and having an open stream of communication between everyone was important, Katarina says the key was their common vision. They also had a brilliant agreement that if things began to affect their relationship, they'd put an end to the project. While there were plenty of tough challenges to navigate, there was one thing they found to be the most aggravating. "[There] was so much non-visible to do before we got to do the visible part," she says. "It felt like we just tore down and renovated the base construction for years before we came to the fun part, i.e. building, decorating, and seeing the change."
A Project Not Without Challenges
Challenges are painful in the moment, but looking back they always eventually provide a story to tell. Every home has its own unique intricacies, too, so sometimes problems are a fascinating look at how houses are constructed. Katarina mentions that there were plenty of surprises along the way, and the renovation took far longer than expected.
One of the most challenging was the fact that one-third of the exterior logs had to be swapped out due to moisture damage. They realized this when they removed the eternity plates that had been there for 50 years. It wasn't a great find, but what was most interesting was that "the 'new' logs needed to be as old as the original ones in order not to change form and size later on," according to Katarina. They couldn't just take any lumber and work it into the frame. Difficult? Yes, but so uniquely characteristic of the home.
Once most of the exterior and not-so-visible work was completed, what Katarina considers the fun part could officially begin. Every room received an elevated upgrade that still respected and illuminated the house's old roots. "From the beginning, we decided to cherish the style of the 19th century," she notes. Katarina's favorite room is the kitchen, but it also happened to be the biggest challenge in terms of interiors. Trying "to combine the feeling of an 1800s country kitchen with the practical requirements of a modern kitchen" meant it was no easy task. Though a good portion of the cabinetry is new, they intentionally chose ones that differed in appearance for a more eclectic look.
Throughout the home, she stuck with traditional color schemes and wallpaper that wasn't covered in wild patterns or neon colors. "The great thing with the traditional color palette is that all colors fit together and look harmonious together, so you do not need to be afraid of mixing," she says. Even with a few more pastel colors making an appearance, it still feels cohesive. "The color combination of gray and ochre yellow together with old off-white furniture turned out to be just so harmonic and just right for the small space," she says about the yellow chamber next to the kitchen. These palettes will make it easier for the home to morph and change over the years, too.
Katarina also wasn't fussed about quickly decorating the rooms. Slow and intentional was the name of the game. Rather than purchasing things just to fill the space, she and her husband took their time. "When it comes to the furniture it’s a mix of heritage, antique thrifts from over the years we pursued in our earlier homes, as well as some pieces found in the sheds which we have had restored," she explains. "If we miss something we keep it in mind on antique fairs and flea markets until we find what we are looking for. It does not need to go fast."
They relied on fabrics and textiles to draw the rooms together, too. "Our curtains are mainly made from old lace sheets from flea markets, the handmade embroidered table cloths are inherited or thrifted, and many of the traditional woven carpets are made by my aunt, especially for these rooms." Additionally, they decided to keep the original purpose of each room, which made it easier to arrange and decorate since, for example, they weren't trying to give their parlor a new life as a living room.
She didn't have social media to turn to either when she was designing and had to look elsewhere to get the creativity flowing. "At the time I planned the interior, there was unfortunately still no Instagram," she says. "The inspiration and ideas came mainly from books about old traditional houses as well as two Swedish magazines: Lantliv and Gård och Torp." Her patience in selecting the right furniture pieces and her dedication to maintaining the home's traditional look paid off in the long run. The entire place is modern enough for living comfortably but shines all on its own as a home with a long history.
Though there are many people who become enchanted with the world of home renovation after the fact, Katarina is extremely honest about her future plans. Another renovation doesn't interest her in the slightest. "Me and my husband definitely agree that this was a once-in-a-lifetime project," she says, adding that maintenance of the buildings they already have will take up most of their free time. "We want to enjoy the result of our work now until—hopefully—the next generation takes over."